Bristol is having a bit of a moment and I couldn’t be more excited for my home city. With accolades coming out of its ears – ‘Coolest City in Britain’ (Rough Guides), ‘Best City to Live in 2017’ ( The Sunday Times), new restaurants and attractions popping up all over the place (see the trendy complex of eateries in repurposed shipping containers by the Harbourside, Aerospace Bristol and upcoming Being Brunel), the city is a thrilling place to visit.
If you’re visiting the city and after a bit of family-friendly entertainment on a budget, Bristol has loads of offer – from fascinating museums to historic towers, city farms, brilliant play parks and of course, that mother of a bridge…read on for my top free things to do with kids in Bristol.
Clifton Suspension Bridge
Young kids might not give two squawks about Brunel’s engineering prowess, exhibited in Bristol’s famous landmark Clifton Suspension Bridge, but it doesn’t half make for some lovely photographs. On the city side, there’s lots of green grass to run around on, wooded paths that lead to The Downs, a lovely wooden park surrounded by rocky walls and beautiful Clifton Village to wander. Don’t miss the natural rock slide (polished smooth by generations of gliding botties) or Clifton Observatory and the Giant’s Cave (more on that later). Hop across the bridge and it’s just a short walk to the vast, green Ashton Court Estate and National Trust woodland, Leigh Woods.
Owner of one of the most spectacular views in the city (and let’s face it, in the UK, nay the world) and one of only two camera obscuras open to the public in England is Clifton Observatory and Camera Obscura. While not entirely free, it’s very cheap and you get a lot of bang for not many bucks. Inside you wind and wend down steep stony steps to the ‘Giant’s Cave’ – so-named after the legendary Goram and Ghyston from Bristolian folklore who are supposed to be responsible for creating the city’s dramatic Avon Gorge. The stairs lead to a little balcony halfway down the cliff face, with breath-taking views of the Suspension Bridge and up and down the Gorge. NB: under 4s are not allowed in the cave for health and safety reasons.
A delicious wide-open green space right on the city’s doorstep, Ashton Court has acres of grass and woodland open to the public for free. Cyclists, mountain bikers, horse riders, golfers and families flock here for fresh air, bike trails, buggy-friendly paths,and a golf course. Spot fallow deer wandering in fenced-off areas, play hide and seek in the woods or let little ones scoot to their heart’s content. There’s also a couple of cafés if you get peckish. If you’re visiting between March and October, be sure to check ahead to see if the Miniature Railway is running (90p a ride, 10 rides for £8) – it’s brilliant fun. Along with bridges, Banksy, Brunel and boats, one of Bristol’s famous ‘B’s is balloons. If you’re early or late enough you may be lucky enough to spot one taking off in the grounds, or for a hot air balloon spectacular (over 100 take off from the grounds in the early morning and evening, plus special night glows on Thurs and Sat), visit the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta – four days of FREE family fun.
This museum is a life-saver on a rainy day. The first thing you’ll notice on entering is a old aeroplane hung from the huge high ceilings of this beautiful building. Colourful Chinese dragons adorn the walls and a statue with a spilt pot of paint lopped over it is a throwback to when Bristol’s infamous son Banksy took over the place back in 2009. There’s loads of exploring to be done – dinosaurs, a dodo, Egyptian mummies, gypsy caravan, South West Wildlife, exotic animals, colouring tables and lots more. Downstairs, a fenced-off children’s play area with interactive puzzles, dressing up costumes and voice recorder keeps tinies entertained even longer. The museum is completely geared up for families and you’ll find feeding and changing rooms, a café and buggy-friendly lifts. Check their website for current exhibitions.
One of Bristol’s greatest parks, with a lovely play area for kids, including a huge sand pit. It’s very popular with dog walkers (the huge kid’s play area is a dog free zone), so if you’re little one is a canine fan then it’s a great chance to spot a few. The park comes into its own in summer when the free lido is filled with water for kids to splash about in and ice cream sellers wander the walkways. A lovely little kiosk at its centre sells refreshments.
Millennium Square Water Fountains
Down near the city centre, close to the Floating Harbour there are fountains and water features to be found, perfect for paddling on a hot, sunny day. You’re also right next to We The Curious (Bristol’s brilliant interactive science centre) and its giant disco ball lookalike, which also happens to be the UK’s only 3D Planetarium.
Take to the water to get around the city, or just pootle round the Harbourside on one of Bristol’s water buses. Ok, they’re not free but they’re not very expensive either and a family ticket will only set you back a few squids. The ferries start at Broad Quay and go all the way around the Floating Harbour to the Pump House, Nova Scotia and The Cottage, stopping at sights like Brunel’s SS Great Britain on the way. Or you can go the other way, all the way to Temple Meads Train Station.
Sitting pretty on the Harbourside, Arnolfini offers free family activities all year round. From film screenings to story time, exhibitions and art workshops it’s a fantastic place to eat, drink, learn and be merry.
So much spaaaaaace to run wild in! It’s no wonder it’s been called ‘Bristol’s green lung‘. Pack a picnic and laden yourselves with scooters, balance bikes, kites, balls, trikes and anything else you can think of to enjoy the great outdoors. The café next to the water tower is a great spot for refuelling. Head to the Sea Walls end, where there’s gorgeous views along the Avon Gorge to the Clifton Suspension Bridge one way and the Severn Bridge the other. Lucky youngsters will be grateful for the ice cream van that sits down here on sunny days.
Two play areas cater for younger and older kids. Sitting atop the hill, the castle or ‘folly’ is an interesting fantastical perk and the stream-side walks inside the gorge are dreamy.
From prehistoric times to the present day, the story of Bristol is told here through interactive displays and quirky paraphernalia. Kiddy favourites are a real-life double decker bus, life-size horse and suspended hot air balloons. During the holidays, they offer train and crane rides along the dockside as well as Pyronaut trips on the water. There’s also a café and killer panoramic views over the Harbourside from the roof, or wander over to Wapping wharf for something seriously yummy in a shipping container.
Following the success of the Grand Appeal’s ‘Gromit unleashed’ and ‘Shaun the Sheep’ arts trails which saw oodles of Aardman’s decorated Gromits and Shaun sculptures pop up around the city, comes Gromit Unleashed 2. This time three characters – Wallace, Gromit and Feathers McGraw will take the city by storm from 2 July to 2 September 2018. The trail is set to feature lots of exciting new interactive additions which we are excitedly waiting to be revealed. Download the app, round up the family and seek out the statues!
Hundreds of squirrels frolic in the gardens surrounding this grade II* listed tower – take a few nuts with you and they’ll eat them right out of your hand! Climb to the top of the steep winding tower steps and you’ll be rewarded with unforgettable panoramic views of the city. There’s a delightful little water feature, children’s play area and steep grassy hill sides, perfect for rolling down.
Over the bridge, opposite Ashton Court Estate is a lovely patch of woodland. If you have a doggy or a child to walk, let them run their little leggies out here. Although a nature reserve managed by the National Trust, it’s open free to the public. There’s a variety of colour coded pathways and mountain bike trails to choose from plus a few swings and bits for kids to play on on the way round. They also put on events in the woodland every so often that are worth looking out for. The views across the gorge to the Suspension Bridge aren’t too shabby either.
The Matthew, a replica of the ship John Cabot (or Giovanni Cabotti) sailed across the Atlantic and discovered North America, is moored on Bristol’s Harbourside. It’s stunning to look at and free to hop aboard. It’s got pretty pirate-y vibes which kids will love and they often put on a ‘Captain Barnacle Pirate’ panto while cruising the harbour in the holidays.
St Werburgh’s (north of the river) and Windmill Hill City Farm (south of the river) and Community gardens are perfect for pottering about and learning about farm animals. St Werburgh’s has a children’s play area, a Gaudi-meets-hobbit gnarly tree cafe with outside deck serving fresh, wholesome, mostly organic food whilst Windmill Hill feels slightly larger and offers activities such as goat walking! It also has a lovely child-friendly cafe with farm produce to buy, gluten free options and they recycle Ella’s pouches – big thumbs up in my book!
Bristol is home to a whopping 400 parks and gardens and many of these have brilliant children’s play areas. Oldbury Court & Snuff Mills is a big green estate with woodland, riverside walks, cafe kiosk, picnic spots and a kid’s play area complete with pirate ship, sand pit and zip wire. Canford Park is a Victorian park with football pitches, tennis courts and a bowling green and a great play area. You’ll also find plenty of park life at Horfield Common, Eastville Park with its huge fishing lake, Redland Green and small Victorian park Cotham Gardens.